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I Like Turtles: Jason Kubel (NL) and Josh Willingham (AL)

It occurred to me while getting ready to prepare my Turtle piece — buy lows who panned out wonderfully — that I really had a pair who were virtually identical in each league. Oddly enough, it was ‘out with the old, in with the older’ as I more or less doubled down on a departed Twin — Jason Kubel — and an incoming one — Josh Willingham — as late draft power sleepers.

I think the Willingham pick was a bit more difficult to justify, though neither by themselves would be considered a ‘lock’ to produce. Willingham certainly played relatively well, hitting about half of his home runs on the road, and half at cavernous O.Co Coliseum. The 29 homers were Willingham’s largest power output home run-wise, but there was no guarantee that Target Field, which to date hadn’t been very accommodating to any sort of power hitter, would provide any sort of boost to the Hammer in his age-33 season.

What occurred at Target Field in 2012 was nothing short of strange. If I recall correctly, Stat Corner listed RH home run park factors of 89 for O.Co in 2011, and 95 for Target Field. Essentially, a decent jump, but probably not enough to draw a conclusion from. But Willingham, along with Trevor Plouffe, went a long way to change the right-handed power landscape at Target Field in its third season of existence. There are some pretty wacky theories out there — including one about the cement finally ‘settling’ in year three — but I think it just boils down to the Twins finding or ‘developing’ right-handed hitters with the requisite muscle to reach a deeper left field fence than that which resided in the Metrodome.

As the benefactor of the largest free agent contract the Twins have EVER handed out (seriously, at three years, $21 million), Willingham’s season was nothing short of sensational. The Hammer popped 35 home runs despite missing the last week-plus of the season with a shoulder injury, and boosted his isolated power, discipline, and walk rates at the expense of a few more whiffs. Essentially, he was more than the Twins could have dreamed for at that rate.

Kubel, on the other hand, was a bit of a head-scratcher for the Diamondbacks. I was higher on the signing than David Cameron was to be sure, but the Snakes really didn’t need another outfielder. Gerardo Parra was coming off a Gold Glove campaign, and had proven to be more than capable with the bat. Now, as a revisionist, Parra ended up actually grabbing 430 PA in spite of being essentially a spare-part as the season began. Still, the Snakes didn’t quite have the kind of campaign that one would want as a club coming off a postseason run.

The money for Kubel wasn’t superfluous, but it seemed like his skill-set might be. He’s a terrible outfielder — downright dreadful — and he hadn’t played any first base to that point in his career either. Besides, Paul Goldschmidt seemed to have that position locked down. But having followed Kubel coming up, he had shown a ton of potential as a prospect before shredding his knee in the Arizona Fall League. He was the third hitting prospect in the trio of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and his development was severely stunted by said injury. He basically needed all of 2006 to find his swing before having a much better, if still a bit underwhelming, 2007 season. In 2009, I think Kubel showed what his ceiling was as a hitter, though the subsequent season at the Dome and seasons after at Target Field did certainly put a damper on his outlook.

One thing I was sure of was that his new home digs at Chase Field were a left-handed hitter’s paradise. Again, if I recall correctly, the park factors for extra-base hits from LH hitters were all well above 100. Make no mistake, the Kubel signing was probably a calculated signing in that respect. Essentially, he was the slightly richer man’s Willingham this offseason (two-years, $16 mill with identical $7.5 mill option for 2014), and he hit as one might have calculated in that park. In fact, in my ‘10 Bold Predictions” this offseason, I said Kubel would pop 30 home runs and still not be particularly useful. In the end, Kubel was worth 1.9 wins. Among 30-plus home run hitters in 2012 — there were 26 — only Ike Davis (1.6 WAR) and Adam Dunn (1.7) were worth less to their clubs.

But we don’t care too much about WAR in fantasy leagues, and all told, I paid $17 for 65 home runs, a low but not crippling batting average, and a good amount of extra-base pop and walks between the two. Fantasy-wise, I picked up Willingham in the late-teens round-wise or later, often-times (I was in nine leagues) grabbing him and Kubel in succession because I tend to go outfield later in my picks. In the Ottoneu Staff league II — in which I finished third — where we drafted from scratch, I nabbed Willingham for $9 and Kubel for $8. Essentially, cheaper combined than I paid for Jay Bruce ($26) or Bryce Harper ($18). Additionally, I nabbed Yoenis Cespedes for $8, and my original Turtle piece would have been on Chase Headley, whom I procured for $5.